I first saw her across the courtyard in the town where I lived as a young child. I wouldn’t have noticed her if it hadn’t been for my mother’s somewhat disgusted, almost worried glances in her direction. As a child I was oblivious as to why, and I’d been brought up, of course, not to be inquisitive or overly curious. We were sitting outside a restaurant on spindly metal chairs, and my father was bent over trying to wedge a folded piece of paper underneath the table leg to stop it from wobbling. I could see how his huge overcoat and scarf were making him grow hot from the way his face grew considerably redder the more he struggled with the task. My mother’s dark cream skin contrasted horribly next to him, like paper that has been neglected, left to fester and decay. She smoked a cigarette slowly and elegantly, and I marveled at the way the smoke unfurled around her chin and then drifted away. She, too, was wrapped up in a huge coat and scarf, but she was as thin as my father was fat and her jaw was clenched to keep herself from shivering.
My mother’s eyes, the same colour as the steel table on which she’d left her cup of hot water, were narrowed at the intricately carved bench across the courtyard. From where I sat and with my child’s eyesight I could hardly see what it was that offended her. All I could see was a tall figure, sat upright and proper and apparently oblivious to the falling snow, dressed in a black suit jacket and trousers with a white shirt and thin black tie underneath. I don’t know why I assumed she was a girl, everything I had been taught by my tight-lipped mother was contradicted by this assumption; her hair was slicked back, the way it was fashionable for boys to do in those days, and even from this distance I could tell the jacket was a man’s just from the broad shoulders. This, maybe, was why my mother was sucking at her cigarette with such disdain. I went back to my hot chocolate, burning my lips on the scalding liquid whilst the cold winds continued biting at my cheeks, and I remember thinking that it was the most wonderful thing to feel two completely different things at the same time.
I was forgetful in the way that most children are. My interest could be captured for five minutes at most, and my mother turned her nose up at so many things that the tall girl in the suit didn’t seem to be anything remarkable. We were taught as children, in school and at home, not to look too closely at anything. We were expected to further the society within the strict guidelines that already existed when we grew up, but until then we were expected to be quiet and polite and draw the snow covered trees all around us in peace and try very hard not to be interested in anything or ask any questions or bother anyone in any way. Which was fine; I didn’t know how to be any other way. And so the tall girl in the suit never crossed my mind again; ten years later when I saw her standing very still in the courtyard on my way home from school I was alarmed to realise that I recognised her from all that time ago. I thought I must be mistaken, because she hadn’t changed at all, although her hair was no longer slicked back against her skull, it now hung unruly at chin length as was the new fashion for the boys at my school.
There was something, a prickling at the back of my neck that wasn’t anything to do with the year-round cold that told me she was the same girl that had been sitting on the bench when I was seven and drinking hot chocolate. So, I stopped. She had her back to me and I suddenly felt very cold even with my thick scarf pulled up around my mouth and my hands tucked inside the sleeves of my winter coat. And then she turned around, and something about her face made me wonder how I could ever forget it. She was handsome with a strong jaw, but beautiful with long eyelashes that framed wide, dark eyes. In the one moment that I looked at her I felt entirely insignificant, like a deep hole had started opening inside me, and suddenly I could feel everything, so much that I wanted to cry like I never had before, regardless of the fact that it wasn’t allowed. She began to walk towards me, and with every step she got nearer and the hole seemed to grow wider, and I felt more; sadness and jealousy and happiness and guilt and pain and emotions I didn’t even know what to call because I’d never even been told they existed let alone felt them for myself. By the time she was two steps away from me I thought I must be about to faint, or be swallowed whole by the vast emptiness growing inside me, but she moved past me and made her way up the street, she barely looked at me, and the further she got from me the further the emptiness felt, the smaller the hole seemed to get, leaving me standing there on the street, experiencing real confusion for the first time in my life.